July 15, 2016
A quick Google search will give you the definition and origin of the word landscape. A Middle Dutch word born out of putting the word land with ship (the figurative use of the word as in ‘condition’) and evolving into what we would now describe as an area of land or a depiction of a region of the natural world. Ultimately the word is now associated with paintings that illuminate geography, mostly those done by artists in the 19th and early 20th century. And, for better or worse it also makes a lot of people think of images of trees, mountains and lakes.
I was at a conference last year when I happened to sit in on a presentation by a group of people who suggested that landscape painters were actually a patriarchal problem that eschewed depicting Aboriginal people because they were for the most part racist. That anyone drawn to work about the natural world without Inuit or Aboriginal people in it was in denial of colonialism’s ruinous history. I was deeply offended however I don’t get publicly offended that often and these people were nice and young so I let it pass. But, I am an artist dedicated to depicting the natural world and I have spent two decades theorizing on it, philosophizing about it and basically creating what would amount to Phd on the subject via the hundreds of books/essays I’ve read and the thousands of hours I’ve spent in the wilderness. I actually moved into the forest to be embedded in my subject matter.
Regardless this opinion, that landscape art work is ultimately just a rouse to push a white, racist agenda regarding the natural world is just that, an opinion. It’s a theory as good or bad as any other and as it might slowly gain traction in Canada, you will no doubt read more and more about this nasty practice of spending time outdoors, soaking up the Earth’s bounty and interpreting it with oil and acrylic on canvas and wood.
At one time the only threat I had to the intellectual rigour of my work was by hobby painters or those that assumed that landscape painting was a hobby art. When I told some people I created landscape art work they would immediately say they did too and would regale me with tales of how once or twice a year they would sit in their backyard and paint their peonies. If I told other artists they assumed that I sell poppy paintings on Etsy. If I told curators they’d roll their eyes and then politely say that they have storage areas full of paintings of lakes. And then there were members of my art community who would discuss on social media at length how sick and tired they were of the Group of Seven and aren’t we as a nation over this whole ‘our wilderness is amazing’ thing? Over time I disengaged with people about what I do because it became harder and harder to describe as I was steadily pushed into a defensive position. I honestly think the worst thing an artist can do is defend what they do. I will never defend what I do as my art work isn’t for anybody but me and those who are drawn to it.
Although I find this ongoing negation of what I have chosen as subject matter (just try getting a grant with a description of wanting to make art about Lake Superior Provincial Park) depressing it’s more like a ‘I know I’m going to die one day’ kind of depressing. Because when I get out and find what I want to paint I care less about the world I will ultimately need to navigate and count on for income and more on what is in front of me, beneath me and part of me. I generally live in the present and find that the administrative tasks that put food on my table a necessary evil and so I’m very happy when I am working.
Therefore I have no need to go on Facebook or Twitter and make statements like, “landscape painting is akin to medieval religious painting with the land as god and not unlike the pagan tradition” or “landscape art work has radicalized footprints which can be seen in Breughel for instance as a way of making the church look inferior/secondary to nature” or that “landscape artists put human influence having a central role in the natural world’s degradation/evolution like Turner’s later work” or that “Courbet showed a defiant sexuality through landscape” or that “resource based industry was widely documented through landscape painting” or that “a lot of landscape work influenced what we have now as the modern environmental movement” or….. as you can see I would spend all my time “defending” landscape work and I don’t do that.
My first experience with landscape art work was with Inuit drawing. My mother loved art work made by Inuit artists, volunteered for Inuit issues and longed to visit what is now Nunavut. These art works told a story of people completely immersed in their landscape, and the need to heed to it, to revere it and to ultimately see their dependence on it as deeply spiritual without the dualism (humans/nature) we seem to have and continue to have. I am forever grateful that I was given this opportunity to explore 2D work that was so rich in poetic and philosophical underpinnings while also being narratives – in many ways this is still what I try to do.
But I don’t draw people or animals and I never will. I am the figure in my landscape paintings. Like landscape artists before me I just try to pull into my psyche who I am in the wilderness; I’m not an intruder, I’m not a tourist, I’m not in denial of shared histories, I hold the wild in me and I interpret this experience in art, nothing more.
June 16, 2016
Having lived fairly remotely for well over a decade now I can attest to how it shapes one’s thinking about the world. Being in rural central Ontario is hardly far from civilization however there are many challenges and you wonder how on earth anyone lived here prior to the telephone being invented. Being connected is probably the most important issue for a rural artist. Connectivity comes in many forms, the internet being just one. Roads, the transport of goods and services, emergency services, health services, as well as the wired world are necessities that allow small rural places to work.
While urban dwellers revel in the renaissance of localization and desiring of all things made just steps form their door – us rural communities while also going through a great enlightenment about local fare and trade need more to sustain our small worlds. We need to also be a part of the arteries and corridors to which all of life travels. How else do we ever understand our world without the experience of being part of it if only as a parcel ordered online or a book from a Toronto library or a meal expertly made by someone trained in busier place?
I admit to being somewhat loathe to use the word connectivity as its buzz word status and TED talk cache makes it part of growing trend in our world of using marketing phrases instead of actually expressing the complexity of issues. Marketing has won the war of words and we now regularly describe things in a lexicon better suited to ‘wow factor’ settings and power point presentations than actually talking to each other. I do it too, all the time and in fact I can get distressingly confused when I use marketing phrases un-ironically only to find that in fact irony would have been a better thing to express.
But connectivity as a word works because we are connected now in a vast amount of ways. We connect through the internet, through travel, through consuming, through our food, through our politics, our beliefs, and almost every experience the world can offer. Just purchasing a household item at HomeSense can make you connected to Bangladesh, micro and macro economics, the shipping industry, trade barriers and transactions, fossil fuel, geopolitics, varied labour and retail practices and the fashion industry. When you live rurally this comes into focus very sharply; rural types adjust over time to essentially being uninterested in constantly consuming and begin to think about it as an unusual or intriguing activity not just a daily experience.
We thrive best when our little dirt roads and quiet hamlets are interrupted occasionally by the ‘outside’ world. We do not need to swim in its steady flow of information and events and prefer not to – inertia is balanced by disruptions in the form of new people, new technology and inevitable changes in the world. This pace is envied. Visitors always find that our lives here must be ‘peaceful’, ‘relaxing’ and ‘heavenly’. There are now several studies on this very idea: a UK government study which states that 1-4 people in that country suffer from depression and other mental illnesses to which ‘green’ activities such as farming seems to help and a Stanford University study that shows how the brain is relieved from stress through experiencing the natural world.
It’s hard to write about this kind of thing. Everyone has a deep and extraordinary experience of the world but when all I hear most of the time is birds, distant cars occasionally and wind the mind does in fact rest and things in there become more vivid. I don’t think I’m smarter because of it unfortunately and I am not certain whether it has benefited me or not. I am however full of joy more often than sorrow and that is an enormous difference than when I lived in the city.
Isolation however must be balanced in both a metaphysical sense and a real world sense. On one hand you need to be with your species as Maude would say (see image), you do, I can attest to this. Otherwise you get weird. You also need to know that the other exists and this is where technology has really helped (or hindered, depends on world view) – technology is an extension of our conscious desire to connect to the other. While fighting on Facebook with strangers may not seem like a very enlightened way forward, it is but the beginnings of a technological manifestation of how we connect; messy, fraught, tenderly, with compassion, with hatred and with humour. It could be our undoing; it could be our greatest moment. We don’t know.
For artists, we have always made our own technology in order to make what we make, this kind of hyper connectivity we live in now is challenging but not entirely destructive. We rural types know this because we HAD to evolve. You can’t live where I do without screens on your windows. One day, generations from now someone living in my log cabin will say, “how on Earth did those artists live here without ___________ ?”
Hopefully the birds, distant cars and the wind will still be the only sounds.
Photo from Google Images